Guns and the Mentally Ill

by Joseph Merlin Bowers

Every time there is a major tragedy involving guns and mental illness there is the very predictable knee-jerk reaction. A large vocal group calls for more gun control while a smaller vocal group calls for better treatment of those with serious mental illnesses. Both sides think they have the answer and attention to the other side would distract from their cause, There are, of course, some who realize we need both. What everybody seems to agree on is that guns must be kept from people with mental illness histories. This is where I throw the bullshit flag.

To deny a right (granted to all other citizens in good standing) indiscriminately to anyone who has a mental illness history is clearly ignorant and discriminatory. What galls me the most is that the same people who claim there is often recovery from serious mental illness are fine with denying guns from anybody with any history. Can we recover or not? What do you really believe?

Some states have written their laws intelligently. The wording in the statutes talks about people currently having issues. Other states and federal legislation would ban guns from anyone who had ever had issues with a brain disease.

In Wyoming years ago, I went to a sporting goods store and purchased a high powered rifle for deer and elk hunting and a shotgun for birds and small game-$700 worth. When filling out the paper work I came across a question about mental illnesses. Because a friend from work from whom I was trying to keep my past psychosis a secret was with me, I just lied.

The next day by myself I went back and asked the shop owner if he had the statute on which that question was based. He did. By my reading, because I had been in a mental hospital, I could never legally purchase, own or possess a firearm in Wyoming. The shop owner insisted it applied only to people with current psychosis which it should. I kept the guns and did a fair amount of hunting in the subsequent years. Of course I was never a threat to commit mass murder.

I have quit big game hunting but would love to hunt turkey and haven’t yet sold my shotgun. So when I moved to Colorado I tried to find out how sneaky I would have to be to do this. I was unable to find Colorado’s statute about guns and the mentally ill on line so I called the county sheriff’s office. The deputy I spoke with is sure that it’s all right for me to own a shotgun and hunt turkeys. I would feel better if I could just find that statute

But look at my case. I haven’t had a serious psychotic episode since 1987. I grew up with guns. There were high powered rifles hanging on the wall in the dinning room in the house I grew up in. In a nearby closet were two shotguns. I always knew where the ammo was. I’ve used guns all my life. I’ve had numerous gun safety and hunter safety courses. I’ve never misused  a gun. In all reality there is no living person more responsible with a firearm than I. I’m far more likely to lose it long enough to punch someone in the face than to shoot someone. That’s because it was drilled into me from early childhood that one takes on much responsibility when he picks up a gun. They are like any other power tool-they must be respected-they can not be feared.

Clearly there needs to be more restrictions on firearms. Clearly people who are psychotic and or suicidal or have a history of violent behaviour should be kept away from guns. But many people who have experienced mental illness issues are doing well now and are just as responsible as anyone else. To deny us a basic right is ignorant and discriminatory.

There is another problem I forgot to talk about when I first wrote this blog. People believe we can prevent mass murder incidents by treating and or keeping guns from people with mental illnesses, but it’s not that easy. Studies confirm that people are most likely to act out in a violent manner during their first psychotic episode. In subsequent episodes, violence is not as likely. How does one write legislation that keeps guns from first time psychotics without keeping them from everyone?

Although in the cases of many mass killers one can look back afterwards and see signs of insanity, few people first encountering madness would recognize the signs or know what to do about it if they did. It’s easy to look back and say so-and-so’s parent or teacher or someone should have seen this coming and done something. That’s not realistic. People with no personal experience often don’t know what they are seeing or what to do about it. Even when someone does, the systems in most states are so broken that it’s next to impossible to do anything constructive anyway.

Although untreated mentally ill people are more likely than the general public to commit violence, it’s still a small percentage that do. While I favor better gun control and definitely treatment for the mentally ill and believe both would help reduce the frequency of incidents, let’s not go overboard with banning guns from anyone with a mental illness history. Their are many people with some history who clearly are not a threat to anyone.

We can and we should do everything we can to reduce the number of these incidents, I just don’t think they can be totally eliminated.

We can and we should.

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